The Himachal Pradesh High Court on Friday enlisted the Eco-Task Force set up by the Indian Army based at Kufri (Shimla) for removing encroachments over forests or public land in the Jalatha, Chaithla, Pungrish, Pandali and Kalemu villages in Kotkhai tehsil in Shimla district.

The Army is expected to accompany the SIT constituted by the Court on 25 April for the purpose. The SIT comprises of  Debasweta Banik, IAS, Additional Deputy Commissioner, Shimla; Soumya Sambasivan, IPS, Principal, Police Training College, Daroh; and Alok Nagar, Chief Conservator of Forests (EAP).

The Bench comprising Acting Chief Justice Sanjay Karol and Justice Sandeep Sharma directed, “Considering the enormity and complexity of the problem, more so during the current harvesting season, we direct that the Eco Task Force, set up by the Indian Army for carrying out plantation work within the State of Himachal Pradesh, having its base at Kufri (Shimla), shall be deployed for implementing the orders passed by this Court and upholding the Rule of Law. Ordered accordingly.

The Jawans of the said Force shall assist the members of the SIT in” addition to 125 personnel so deployed by the Forest Department for carrying out the operations. They shall work in tandem with the SIT, so as to ensure that every encroachment over forest/public land in the villages, referred to supra, is removed forthwith.”

The Court is hearing a suo motu public interest litigation on a letter written to the Chief Justice by a resident of Chaithala village in Kotkhai tehsil, alleging that around 40 residents of Chaithala, Nagpuri Chaithala, Karewag Chaithala and Sevag Chaitala villages in Shimla district have raised apple orchards on around 500 bighas of government land. The letter had further alleged that despite several orders being passed against the encroachers, these orders weren’t being implemented.

Taking serious note of the concerns raised in the letter, the Court had then observed, “Contents of letter, which are reproduced hereinabove, are reflective of a very sorry state-of-affairs of functioning of the officers/officials of the State, who despite assurance meted out to this Court, have really not taken any effective action against such of those persons, who have encroached upon large chunk of government land and more specifically in Villages Jalatha, Chaithla and Pungrish of Tehsil Kotkhai, District Shimla, Himachal Pradesh.”

It now noted that despite its order to the contrary, “officials of the State are continuing to carry out operations only qua small farmers and no action is being taken against big encroachers”. It further took note of the fact that despite several assurances, no action had been taken against encroachers specifically named in the order.

Besides, the Court was informed by Mr. A.C. Sharma, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Management) Himachal Pradesh, that 125 personnel (approximately) are carrying out operations for removing encroachments. This, in the Court’s view, is a “highly inadequate number to meet out the enormity and the problem of huge encroachment of forest/ Government land.”

The Court therefore opined that the SIT should visit these villages and remove the encroachments, directing, “Under these circumstances, we are of the considered view that interest of justice only warrants that the SIT so constituted vide order dated 25.4.2018, shall on same/ similar terms, forthwith visit Villages Jalatha, Chaithla, Pungrish, as also village Pandali and Kalemu (Tehsil Kotkhai), as referred to in the communication reproduced herein above as also Village Badhal, as referred to in our order dated 11.7.2018 and carry out operations for removing encroachments over public land, more specifically from the persons referred to in our order.” 

Further, the Eco-Task Force was directed to assist the SIT. With regard to the crop standing on the trees, the Court left it to the judgment of the SIT or the Commanding Officer of the Command/Battalion, to, if required, harvest and market the same, depending upon the existing conditions at the ground level.

As for the modalities of deployment of the Army officers, the Court directed, “We also direct the Deputy Commissioner, Shimla to ensure that deployment of proper, efficient and effective staff, technical and non-technical, in assisting the members of SIT and Eco Task Force, for proper identification of land. Also, he shall render all assistant to the Jawans for lodging and boarding. The expenses incurred by the Eco-Task Force shall be immediately reimbursed by the Deputy Commissioner. Ultimately, who is to bear such expenses shall be decided by the Court later on.”

The matter has now been listed on 24 July, when an action taken report is to be filed by the SIT Chairman.